Pathways to a stable marriage? Pregnancy and childbearing among cohabiting couples in the United States

Daniel T. Lichter, Cornell University
Richard N. Turner, Brown University

The majority of U.S. nonmarital births today (nearly 60 percent) are to cohabiting couples. This study focuses on transitions to marriage or dissolution among post-conception cohabiting unions, i.e., pregnant unmarried women who began cohabiting during the period between conception and birth (i.e., so-called shot-gun cohabitation). Results using the newly-released 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) show that nonmarital pregnancy is a significant precursor to cohabitation before childbirth (18 percent), exceeding transitions to marriage (5 percent) by a factor of over three. Whether these cohabiting relationships transition into marriages that last is uncertain. In this study, we compare marital transitions and stability among (1) cohabiting women without children, (2) post-conception cohabiting women (i.e., shotgun cohabitations), and (3) cohabiting mothers (i.e., women who had children while cohabiting). We use life table methods and discrete time survival models for this purpose. The empirical results show that post-conception cohabiting unions are highly unstable, less likely to transition to marriage, and experience higher rates of divorce (if they become married). Unmarried co-residential relationships, especially those motivated by nonmarital pregnancies, are at greatest risk of instability. The results highlight the conceptual and technical challenges involved in making unambiguous interpretations of the implications of rising fertility among cohabiting couples.

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Presented in Session 1: Cohabitation on both sides of the Atlantic